Snapshot: Niina Pollari on Popsickle, Brooklyn, and Curating

Interview by Steven Karl

I’ve known Niina Pollari for a few years now and have been consistently  impressed with all the work she does as a tireless curator, promoting and fostering a poetry community especially within the borough of Brooklyn. Below is a brief interview with Pollari where she discusses the Popsickle Festival and her vision as a curator.

SK: How did the idea of Popsickle originate? You had already curated the Bushwick Bunker reading series so did you originally see Popsickle as an extension of that, or the chance to do something completely different?

NP: Parker Phillips (my original co-coordinator for Bushwick) and I had kicked around the idea of doing a festival of some kind — her roommate at the time was one of the Bushwick Open Studios people — but Parker left NY to go pursue an MFA. So then Douglas Piccinnini and I organized the first Popsickle, and the format is really the result of that collaboration. We wanted to be able to highlight specifically the Brooklyn reading series, with their often weird settings and unique curatorial vision. It was something different and bigger than either of us had done before, I think.

SK: There are a lot of “festivals” that take place in New York and Brooklyn such as The Bushwick Open Pages, New York Annual Poetry Festival on Governors Island, and The Howl Festival– do you see Popsickle operating in tangent with these or offering something separate? Or in simpler terms, how do you see Popsickle fitting into the landscape of the poetry festivals in New York?

NP: As a festival, we’re in our third year now and in some ways this is a defining year. We limit ourselves to Brooklyn so we stay small, which is definitely an advantage. Bushwick Open Pages, also Brooklyn-based, feels to me like it’s centered around print, whereas Popsickle is about the live energy — both are really necessary.

The other thing is that I think Popsickle relishes in being a little bit weird. The venue is always weird, and the weirdness infuses the atmosphere. We invite content from the different series, but then we mix up the readers so there is no consistent “voice” dominating for any block of time. And the result is really nice! At the end of last year’s program, everyone had been listening to readers and sweating buckets for hours, and Ariana Reines read one poem and then said she would be finished so everyone could go cool off. But the crowd asked for more poems so she kept reading. It was a very beautiful moment.

SK: Whether its Popsickle, or Bushwick Bunker, or 100 Thousand Poets for a Change, one of the hallmarks you’ve established as a curator is your choice of venue. Each festival has a distinct location which seems to an extension of the festival’s aesthetic and your vision. Could you talk about the previous spaces for Popsickle, as well as, the upcoming space and let us in on how and why you choose the spaces you do?

NP: If you’ve had a conversation with me about curating, you know that I shy away from poetry and performance always taking place in a profit-based environment. I love public space, I love non-bar space. Of course there is always the option to participate in buying books and drinks, but when a reading takes place in a bar, it’s as if the transaction is mandatory and I don’t think it should be.

Market Hotel was our space the first year because they were kind enough to offer a collaboration. They had been shut down as a music venue, but saw nothing wrong with a daytime literary event. Hosting the event there really set the tone for Popsickle, because they were kind and receptive and we worked well together.

Last year’s festival took place at the Gowanus Ballroom, which is bananas! A working metal shop with a lofted art gallery! Josh, the owner, had no idea what my event would be like but he trusted me enough to open up his space for the day and the result was something really unique. And Erick, the owner of this year’s space — the newly-opened Paper Box in Bushwick — makes it his aim to collaborate with a variety of artists because he wants his space to be a real arts hub. I found Paper Box off Craig’s List, but we had a conversation and I got a really good feeling. All in all, Brooklyn has a lot of amazing spaces to offer. I guess in this, our third year, I’ve decided that if I can, I’d like to bring the fest to many different venues.

One limitation, though, is that our budget is hilariously nonexistent. Any costs we incur are replenished after the fact with raffle ticket money. It’s not the best fiscal plan but it’s never left me in debt yet. So the venue has to be willing to work with me and with the promise of a crowd, of exposure and things like that.

SK: In addition to being a curator, you’ve recently have had a new chapbook published and have translated a book from the Finnish which will be published by Action Books, could you tell us a little about your chapbook and your translation?

NP: My chapbook, Book Four, was out from Hyacinth Girl Press at the end of last year. It’s culled from an older manuscript about, among other things, global warming. I haven’t given away the secret of the title yet but I wonder if I should tell you. I think I will.

Book Four is a reference to the part in Paradise Lostwhere the sleeping Eve is visited by the serpent. This is the event that leads to the dream of her picking the fruit, and once you’ve dreamt the end, the end is near, right? So the manuscript has to do with the dissolution of something Edenic. That could be the relationship in the book or the environment or many other things. Action Books is putting out my translation of the weird, wonderful work of Tytti Heikkinen, whom I’d been working with for a couple of years. They are google-based, but unlike some of the American Flarf, I think their tone is not at all silly even when the material is funny, which is often (sample poems here). I am so happy these poems will be coming out specifically with Action. I couldn’t think of a better publisher for them.

Popsickle 2012 happens on June 23rd at Paper Box NYC and will be brought to you by Niina Pollari,  JD Scott, Beverly Rivero, and Katherine St Asaph.

-steven karl